Ask any boy or girl what he/she wants to be and you will invariably be told that he/she wants to be an engineer or an air-force pilot, a doctor or a diplomat or an IAS officer, but nobody ever says he wants to be a businessman, although he may be at that very moment a student of one of the elite management institutes.
What is it about the business that young boys and girls think is infra dig? You can make a lot of money if you are a successful businessman, but most of them would rather be something else.
The Tatas are a quintessential business family. They have been at it for nearly two centuries. You might say that business is in their blood. But their PR machine shouts from the rooftops that the Tatas don't work for profits and even if they make profits, most of them don't go into their pockets and is handed out to charities. JRD Tata himself once said that he did not recall a single occasion when they took a business decision that was linked with profits.
When I first met Ghanashyam Das Birla, hoping to draw him out on his business plans, he refused point-blank to talk about it. "It is a beautiful morning," he said, "And you and I are sitting in this lovely garden and you want me to talk about business. Let us talk about politics and Gandhi and Morarji Desai (who was then the PM) and similar important things." I think he meant it.
When, during our question-and-answer session, I asked him how big the Birla family business was and what his future plans were, he said, without blinking, "I am not a businessman."
He said he was never a Congressman, although many believed so and he was not a Gandhian either. He wore western clothes - suit and boot - and never wore Khadi. "I supported Gandhi because I admired him and believed that if anybody would get rid of the British, it would be Gandhi. That's all."
Dhirubhai Ambani, whose sons are now among the top three or four richest Indians, was cut from a different piece of cloth. He was, first and last, a businessman and he made no bones about it. It was his life and nothing else mattered as much. He was there to do business and make money - for his family, for his community and for his country. Everything else was secondary.
I have never met a man who spoke about money with such great passion. He had an intuitive feel for money and things related to money, such as politics and of course, government policy. It is this passion that created his big empire, bigger than the Tatas and Birlas combined. Ten years before he became what he became, he knew he would one day overtake them and only he knew when that would be.
Once I went to meet him in his house in Cuffe Parade, Bombay, with a brand new pen pinned to my shirt. For some reason, he took interest in it. "How much did I pay for it ?" he asked, a billionaire ten times over, asking the price of a measly little pen worth maybe then dollars. But he was keen to know its price, as keen as he was to know the price of a naphtha cracker he was going to install in his plant in Hazira.
We Indians have a love-hate relationship with money and therefore, with the business. We love money but pretend we don't, for that is what our rishi-munis have been telling us. Our friend Dhirubhai had no such hang-ups and he prospered.